Secret Suppers

Peter Frank Edwards
by Sandy Lang - Texas - April/May 2009

A growing number of daring chefs and adventurous foodies have reignited the old Southern tradition of secret supper clubs. Eating out may never be the same

The plates of creamed kale and fried rabbit were going fast, passed from person to person down one long table set in a Texas pecan grove. It was a sultry evening on a four-acre urban farm in east Austin, where forty-three people sat in mismatched chairs for a family-style dinner of eight courses in the lamplight. An old door turned over on sawhorses was the prep table, and Jesse Griffiths, our host and chef, cooked mostly at a table-height iron grill with a bottom tray that—by consensus of several supper guests—was once a feed trough. The fryer, a large cooking pot over a portable propane flame, was behind him. And the whole setup was under the porch roof of a farm shed. He’d been cooking like that for hours, handing plates as soon as they were ready to his small crew, including his wife, Tamara Mayfield, who wore an embroidered summer dress, her brown hair in pigtails. A few yards from the long table, he cooked up pan-fried red peppers as big and sweet as strawberries, homemade jalapeño sausages, and smoky Gulf shrimp wrapped in grilled allspice leaves—all Texas ingredients.

This was a food-loving crowd, and they were eating it up. During the cocktail hour and between courses, people would often amble over to check out the cooking. As he turned quail over hot oak coals, Griffiths told stories: He told about the time he worked two weeks at a restaurant in Mexico that served only spit-roasted goat, turned in a coal-fired pit in the floor. Another time he caught the six pigeons he needed for a squab dinner by using some string, a box tilted up with a stick, and some chicken feed. Then there was Loncito, a lamb rancher, who talked of hosting long weekends at a South Texas hunting camp with two kitchens, where everyone takes turns cooking. A woman from the corporate offices of Whole Foods was there, of course. (Austin is the chain’s headquarters.)

The dinner that night was one put on by a two-year-old supper club in Austin, part of the now-simmering supper club scene in the South. As with many of the other secret-public grassroots clubs, Jesse and Tamara had started theirs with a small idea—to have one dinner on one night, inviting people to slow down for a few hours of good food and wine. More than two years later, the couple is still often cooking for a crowd on Saturday nights. And this is not just happening in Austin. In the Carolinas and Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Texas, and more, food-minded strangers are gathering at long tables to meet others and eat well. Operating outside the realm of official restaurants, this new wave of Southern supper clubs has sprung up in just the past two to three years. Upstarts in the Northwest, Midwest, California, and New York take earliest claim for such dinners, sometimes describing the meals in terms of a social movement, or even a revolution.
 

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